Slow Poisons

A prologue first to what I’m going to say about “academic bullying”.

Considering that the word is used so broadly to discuss a wide range of procedures, practices, attitudes, and ideological positions, maybe we need a better term than “neoliberalism”. And yet, there’s often a real connection between everything referred to in that wide range, so perhaps no other word will serve us better.

I understand perfectly well, for example, how a whole series of workplace rules, practices and norms that have become common across the economy, including in academia, are connected by some common propositions or principles even when they seem ostensibly to be concerned with different issues. Among the connections are:

1) Get as much labor from workers as you can, in part by decomposing some of the barriers between civic life, home life and work life.
2) Get as much labor for free from workers as you can, in part by taking advantage of older cultures of professionalism and civic obligation.
3) Make transparency a one-way street: encourage (or compel) workers to make as much of their working lives as can be imagined visible to and recorded by management or administration, but strongly restrict the ability of workers to get a transparent accounting of what happens with the information they share or give.
4) Shift workers into contractor positions or other workplace forms that reduce or eliminate the responsibility of employers to provide benefits or any long-term commitments to those workers.
5) Treat employees as psychological/economic models or objects rather than as reasoning citizens; privilege managerial approaches that nudge, manipulate, incentivize, and placate employees rather than engage with them in complex, honest terms.

I could go on, and I have in past blog entries.

Another thing I’ve said before, however, is that the answer to neoliberal reworkings of work practices is not to fight back by reducing professional or other labor participation to the market terms that neoliberalism exalts. Meaning if we think there is such a thing as professionalism, and that we want to defend it (or restore it) in the face of neoliberal reworkings, we shouldn’t get involved in just trying to get neoliberalism to pay people off to a greater degree. It’s ridiculous, for example, that current for-profit academic publishers continue to not only rely on a massive amount of free labor that is not only provided by academics but is very nearly required of them in order to have a hope of accessing a tenure-track position and then retaining it. But the answer is not to compel those publishers to pay us some small share of the value we’re producing. It is to take all the value we produce and shift it to a non-profit consortial structure that resides within our professional worlds.

I ache sometimes in academic life because this should be joyous work, and for all that we could fulminate about administrations and neoliberalism and public funding, the possibility of passion and joy, of mission and meaning, still seem graspable. Those possibilities still seem something that could suffuse academic labor everywhere: there is nothing inevitable or required about the spread of grossly exploitative adjunct teaching in most of academia.

So here we come to the problem: neoliberalism sometimes takes hold because we ourselves, with at least some power over our world, can’t manage to imaginatively and fulsomely inhabit the alternative cultures and processes of academic labor that are at least possible. Our own sociality in faculty communities often compresses that space of better possibility from the other direction of neoliberal rules and procedures, and almost nothing humane is left in between.

Yes, we can adopt a kind of neo-Stoical response and control what we individually can control: ourselves. To be passionate and joyful and encouraging and supportive ourselves, and let the rest fall as it must. To demonstrate rather than remonstrate. This is the weakness of some calls to get away from the negativity of “critique”–they end up an example of what they hope to proscribe, a critique of critique. We would be better off showing rather than telling, better off doing than complaining about what other people do. The problem is that all professions are very much defined by their shared ethos, their common structures of collaboration and governance. A novelist or artist or entrepreneur or political consultant often operates in a workplace structure that translates individual sensibility into the surrounding environment. An academic who just does their own thing, on the other hand, is likely to feel the strong tug of faculty governance or administrative oversight in formal terms. More importantly, that kind of neo-Stoicism takes a kind of masterful psychological disposition of some kind: a mind armored against the world, a mind with a detached openness to it all, or a kind of blithe self-regard that is undented by any negativity. (In which case, is probably part of the problem rather than the solution.) Some of us can’t manage it at all, and some of us lose the discipline required over time. Some of us have had the possibility of that insulation stripped from us before we ever started by racial discrimination, by gender discrimination, by other forms of structured bias.


So, prologue over: this is where academic bullying comes in. This research on academic bullying described in the Chronicle of Higher Education will probably surprise no one, but it’s valuable. Bullying may in some sense be almost the wrong word for what I suspect most of the respondents in the study were thinking about. That conjures up imagines of a tough kid demanding lunch money, or a crowd yelling mockery at a crying child. That may be how it feels at times in academia, but the circumstances and content are different. Incivility is another word the researchers used, for a slightly different range of interactions, and that too may not entirely get at what I suspect people were reporting. This is more about pervasive negativity, about how every process and decision, however minor, is mysteriously made difficult and contentious, about how and when ‘standards’ are enforced or demanded, about how blame gets assigned. About how people get trivialized and discouraged, often through indirect, unreportable interactions. Perhaps not even by things said directly to them, but by an invisible network of statements in the social infrastructure around them.

The research described in the article notes that the most common category of reports involve faculty who are tenured (both victim and perpetrator), usually between a very senior faculty member and an associate or younger full professor. The perpetrators are evenly men and women; so are the victims.

We saw some of this at Swarthmore in the faculty-specific results of a campus-climate survey from a while back. Largely the response to the results has focused on student life and on the domain of harm that in some sense we know the most about and understand the best, along lines of race, gender and sexuality. But this wider universe is genuinely harder to grapple with. I don’t have any particularly good ideas myself about it.

Still, it sticks with me. I continue to be troubled by what the faculty respondents showed (I think we had about a 40-45% response rate, if I remember correctly, so there’s a small numbers problem here), which is that a very significant number of people said that they had been bullied or treated poorly by faculty colleagues, that politics, scholarship and faculty governance issues were one of the major instigating reasons. But also very strongly–nearly unanimously, if I’m remembering the results–the faculty respondents also said that there’s nothing that can be done about it and that they especially did not want administrative intervention. That we’re resigned to it.

That feels really screwed up to me. But the research reported in the Chronicle suggests we may be typical. I’ve been struck in both formal assessments and informal visits and conversations on social media where I’ve looked into other campus cultures that this is what a lot of faculty experience–that sense that there’s a small number of people who are cunningly abusive, who understand perfectly well what the red lines are and avoid them carefully, but who are constantly picking away at colleagues, who make most collective work difficult, who passive-aggress others, and who know how to mobilize a defensive screen if anyone gets upset with it.

I keep coming back myself to a moment from a few years back. It was hearing a senior colleague in another department disparage a tenured but more junior colleague about that person’s scholarly productivity. I realized that if this was being said to me, casually, it was likely being said by this person regularly: I am not particularly a confidant of the disparager, and the remark was as conversational as “hey, nice weather today”. I also realized that not many people would know what I know: that the person doing the disparaging is less productive as a scholar than the person being disparaged; that the person being disparaged does amazing teaching and service work; that the person doing the disparaging has not read nor is actually interested in the work of the disparaged person despite the fact that they’re in the same discipline. So here you have someone trying to knock down another person’s reputation over something that they don’t even care about–it’s not as if the complaining person just can’t wait to read more scholarship by the targeted person, or values what that colleague says as a scholar and intellectual.

The longer I’m in academia, the more I am aware of how much of this kind of activity is swirling around me, generated by a small number of people who know they’re never in danger of being confronted about it. It’s never worth picking a fight over in the sense that you can’t stop it–it’s legitimate expression, in some sense–and all you’ll do is become a target of the same sabotage, if you aren’t already. But it kills the joy and excitement that should crackle through our halls, the delight we should be taking in the thinking and teaching of others. That’s the issue, in the end: that we need some signs of that better world in order to stand against the onset of worse and worse ones.

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13 Responses to Slow Poisons

  1. Recovering academic says:

    I find the connection between the way faculty treat each other and neoliberalism interesting — can you unpack it a bit more?

    My perception from having been in academia and now in industry is that people treat one another much better in my industry (tech) as compared to my former field in academia (psychology). Of course, abusive practices and biases are everywhere, but this is something I’ve seen consistently and something fellow academic refugees also report.

    My take on why this is is that it’s about the fixedness of hierarchy. A senior tenured professor will almost always retain authority / status over the junior faculty over the entire course of their careers. There is no way for Tim Burke to be higher in status than James Scott, so there is no incentive for James Scott to be nice to you. By contrast, in tech, hierarchies are very unstable. Your coworker or even your intern might end up your boss; reputation matters a tremendous amount for your career, and word travels (especially in Silicon Valley, the community is surprisingly small). So there is much stronger incentive for people to be nice to each other.

    What do you think of this explanation? Do you think that working conditions are better in industry or academia (ceteris parabis — compare a tenured job at Swarthmore to a senior researcher job at Google)? Can neoliberalism shed light on this distinction?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    It is mostly that I do think that neoliberal approaches to regulating work–which are most common in the most stable and largest organizations–are the opposite of the humane vision that many academics like to imagine they represent or articulate. So I think it is on us to demonstrate more what we profess or aspire to, and to see the work of demonstrating that in more serious terms than we tend to.

    I think it’s possible that the instability of small start-ups produces a kind of uncertainty about power that makes everyone think: this person could be my boss tomorrow. And so to hedge bets. But hedging bets and being more generatively honest and human with one another are not the same thing. I thought the Dan Lyons memoir/tell-all about his time in a tech start-up was instructive on this score–hierarchy was veiled but not as absent as the rhetoric implied. You can see this a bit in recent revelations about Uber and sexual harrassment as well: the ideology that everyone is valued covers up some really baleful hierarchy. But I agree that a very recent, small start-up may feel remarkably equal/unhierarchical in real ways–and feel as if real value and contribution are being uncloaked or made visible.

    The reason in a sense that I hold out hope for academia is that there are actually may situations where a James Scott *will* be nice to a Tim Burke, and Tim Burke will be nice to a just-minted Ph.D (at least I hope). That might actually be closer to the norm. The problem is that our flatness of hierarchy lets the long tails wag the dog.

  3. GemmaM says:

    One of the things I really like about the department in which I am currently a postdoc is the departmental culture, and I think it comes from a couple of things. One is that, despite being a mathematics department, we have three or four respected, sociable people on staff who really set the tone for social interactions, and another couple of quieter people who are nevertheless strong enough and brave enough to insist on respectful departmental norms and regulations. It’s not that there are no bad apples, it’s that the broader culture works to get people talking to and learning from each other, and if you want to avoid the more hierarchically-minded people, you can do so without withdrawing from the department.

    The other thing, though, that makes this all possible, is that we’re the largest university in a small country, which means we’re remarkably secure in our funding. People aren’t worried about losing their jobs, or their status. They don’t feel like they have to grab onto whatever they can get to survive. There are enough jobs around to have a culture of taking care of our own, even for those of us who don’t have permanent positions yet.

    The worst thing about what I usually refer to as “capitalism as a social, rather than economic, system” — and which you are referring to, here, as “neoliberalism” — is that it takes it as given that nobody should be secure. Security, in this worldview, is an opportunity to slack off. But what this fails to realise is that, far more often, security is an opportunity to look up from yourself and care for others, too. Security breeds community, creativity, risk-taking and cultural development. All those things that corporations try to replace with team-building exercises and self-actualization messages — they could get them by giving people some security, if they only knew.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    YES, absolutely. Security is an important precondition of building long-lasting institutions and sustainable cultures.

  5. To Recovering Academic:

    “Your coworker or even your intern might end up your boss….” In the annals of “there really is such a thing as justice,” that kind of happened to me once. After I got my MA, I took a job at an outbound call center for a bank. About a year into the job, I learned that one of my former students (I had been her TA) had been hired as a bank officer for the same bank. She wasn’t technically my boss (I worked at the call center while she worked at a branch), but she was definitely my superior.

    To Tim:

    I work in an academic support position, and my workplace probably resembles a government bureaucracy more than an academic department, although I am technically faculty (non-tenure track) and my department is technically an academic department. As a junior and non-tenured person, I actually feel pretty well-treated and well-respected, probably more than I deserve. I will say that what you describe is a reminder for me to be nicer to people. I can think of times when I’ve said things in the guise of “venting” that I shouldn’t have said.

    I do wonder if there’s a better way to frame it than “niceness.” I realize that’s nit-picking, but maybe framing it as respect for others’ dignity? At any rate, I’m not sure I have the proper framing, either.

  6. Matthew Jordan says:

    I also think entry to the profession is so individualized that it tends to select for egotism and narcissism, frankly. Rivalry and snide behaviour have always been legendary. This also explains how work practices which exploit individuals’ competitiveness and short-term self-interest have thrived. On top of this, academics are gifted at finding reasons (“political,” say) for doing one another down and may actually feel righteous about this. Easy meat for politicians and the politically-minded.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I definitely don’t want it to be niceness. I actually like sharp-edged arguments, I like vivid language–passion is as much what I want as anything else.

    I think what I want is a notion that when it comes to local colleagues–the people with whom you work with–that you are in some sense cheering for them all. I’m not going to be unrealistic or pollyannish here–sometimes someone is just not going to be your kind of person, or they’re not going to be doing the kind of work you think highly of. But I learned from my graduate advisor that there’s usually a way to appreciate or sympathetically connect to even that kind of scholarship that you don’t think that highly of.

    Another way to put it is that if you’re going to venture a criticism towards someone you work with, make it count. Make it be about something real that really matters in a consistent way to you. That’s what bothered me about the colleague I mention above: that colleague was attacking someone else about scholarly productivity in a way that was completely nonsensical, because that colleague doesn’t care about the work of the person being attacked and that colleague isn’t a highly productive person in those terms either. If you want to see someone produce even more work because you really like and appreciate their work, that’s great–but then you likely wouldn’t be griping to a colleague you don’t even know that well about it, you’d be working in a friendly and encouraging way with the person you appreciate. If you’re just demanding more because you think that’s what everyone should do, you’re being the whip hand of something. (Notably some of the people in academia who spend time trying to ratchet up pressure on others to work harder are folks who otherwise profess to be leftists…) There should be fights in academia about things that matter, carried on by people who are genuinely invested in those issues. If that ends up having a personal component to it, that’s ok, it happens. In a sense, what bothers me is that this small fraction of people in most colleges and universities who are ‘bullies’ or something like it are that way about almost everything, and often without particular rhyme or reason except that they generally avoid picking any fights that might actually be dangerous to themselves.

  8. Alice says:


    I think that I can imagine exactly what you’re talking about and I see it in my classroom too. One of my goals as I grow into my role as a teacher is to better understand how I can intervene in those moments. At times it feels clear, and at others less so, and often it’s so subtle that I’m afraid that if I call attention to it and it is denied I’ll be left looking crazy, but I know I saw the peer deflate, I know that that haughty tone, the way that question was phrased, was calculated precisely to deflate the hearer.

    I believe deeply that we can do more, that I personally must do more. I think that we can raise our voices and make trouble. It’s not how I was raised, and it’s scary, and I don’t mean a call-out counter punch. I mean an honest “why are you saying that” an honest “what are you talking about? X does A and B and is an utterly competent researcher?” A refusal to understand what is not true and to go with what is not right.

    Administration here can lead by example with their own transparency.

  9. Dave says:

    This post very much resonates with me; it describes too well some of the dynamics where I teach. I wonder about the role of leadership. Bullying is too often tolerated, in my experience. There simply aren’t any real consequences for ugly, unkind behavior toward colleagues (and students). Bullies are called in for a chat from time to time, but that’s it. Dealing with bullies and the like becomes wearying after a while. As you say, it makes what should be a mostly joyous profession much less so.

  10. Tim Blankenhorn says:

    All thinking about organizational behavior is suspect. That said, I applaud old fashioned forms of leadership by example, by people who understand the value of courtesy and kindness. It makes a difference.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I really am convinced that rethinking how organizations work is one of the key human challenges of this century. The inside of organizational cultures has got to match the mission of organizations in the world in ways that no one has previously achieved.

  12. Lea says:

    Tim I have a question. I know that the security is an importante precondition of long-lasting institutions, but why is important to sustainable cultures?

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    I think any time we believe something should be “sustainable”, or sustained, we have an aspiration that it continue with some intact core into the indeterminate future. That seems to me to require something like security and stability within the institutions, communities or situations where that “core” resides.

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